Because I am both an elder in a Presbyterian church and a religion columnist for a daily newspaper, I followed the divestment issue closely. I even wrote a column criticizing the church for its failure to be in constructive dialogue with our Jewish brothers and sisters before the 2004 General Assembly vote.
But the more I work with a rabbi on my current book project, the clearer it is to me why we Presbyterians failed to anticipate Jewish anger at that divestment vote and, thus, why we felt obligated to try a new approach in 2006. I have come to understand that most Christians fail to understand much of anything about our faith’s historic relations with Jews — whether good (of which there is precious little) or bad (of which there is enough to take up gigabytes of chip memory).
Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, of the New Reform Temple of Kansas City, Mo., and I are writing a book about Jews in Poland who survived the Holocaust because they had help from Christians. The idea is not to find a silver lining in the Shoah (Hebrew term for the Holocaust). There is none. Rather, we want to explore the moral courage it took for a few Christians to risk their own lives to save Jews, whom Hitler’s monstrous “Final Solution” had targeted for death. We are working with the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education (www.mchekc.org), which has established a fund to help defray the cost of our research.
As we have been interviewing survivors and others for this work, I have been surprised by areas of my own ignorance of history and simply astonished at what many of my fellow Christians have confessed to me that they did not know. I have been giving speeches to churches and synagogues recently about the long, lamentable, shameful history of anti-Judaism found in Christian history. In churches, people inevitably come up to me afterwards shaken. They tell me they had no idea that the church universal has been so unremittingly anti-Jewish and that they were unaware that this anti-Judaism helped to create modern anti-Semitism, which in turn helped to birth the poisonous atmosphere in which the Shoah was possible.
Poland has had a reputation as one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe at the start of World War II. As one survivor told us, to her it seemed as if Poles emerged anti-Semitic from their mothers’ wombs. So it is perhaps not surprising to learn that more than 90 percent of Poland’s roughly 3.5 million Jews perished in the Shoah. Perhaps the surprising thing is that thousands of Poles helped to save Jews, even though from 1941 on the punishment for that act of humanity was death.
It is those acts we intend to focus on in our book, though it’s also important to acknowledge that some Poles saved Jews for reasons that had nothing to do with moral courage. Rather, they did it for money, though doing the right thing for the wrong reason still saved lives.
I was much happier — as were most American Jewish leaders — with the direction of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) investment policy after the 2006 General Assembly. But I remain distressed by how little effort most presbyteries and local congregations seem to make to engage in deep and meaningful interfaith dialogue with Jews. And not just with Jews, but also with Muslims and people of other faiths. Oh, here and there you can find some laudable efforts, but for the most part we don’t do very well at this. Given Christianity’s history, this is a shameful failure.
And our failure to educate ourselves continues to hurt us. I hope our book, which will include a segment describing the history of anti-Judaism in Christian history, will help. But it’s up to individual congregations to help teach Presbyterians not only that sorrowful history but also to give them ideas and tools to make the future better. This should be on the agenda of every Session’s education committee.
Bill Tammeus is the faith section columnist for The Kansas City Star. In 2003 he received the David W. Steele Distinguished Writer Award from the Presbyterian Writers Guild.